Animals in Mythology
Since the beginning of human history, people have lived in close contact with animals—usually as hunters and farmers—and have developed myths and legends about them. All kinds of creatures, from fierce leopards to tiny spiders, play important roles in mythology. A myth can give special meaning or extraordinary qualities to common animals such as frogs and bears. However, other creatures found in myths—many-headed monsters, dragons, and unicorns—never existed in the real world.
Animals may serve as stand-ins for humans or human characteristics, as in the African and Native American trickster tales or the fables of the Greek storyteller Aesop. In some legends, animals perform heroic deeds or act as mediators between heaven and earth. They may also be the source of the wisdom and power of a shaman.
Animals often have a dualistic quality in mythology. They can be helpful to humans or harmful—sometimes both. They provide people with food, but at the same time, they can be dangerous. As sources and symbols, animals represent the mystery and power of the natural world, which can create or destroy.
Animals and People
Many myths explore relationships between humans and animals. People may talk with animals, fight them, or even marry them. Sometimes animals perform services for humans, such as guiding them through the underworld or helping them complete tasks. One large group of myths involving animals concerns transformations, or changes, between the human and animal states. Other myths focus on the close connection between people and animals.
Transformation. A princess kisses an enchanted frog, and he becomes a handsome prince with whom, the fairy tale tells us, she will live "happily ever after." Such transformations—in which people turn into animals or animals turn into people—take place in stories from around the world. Transformation myths are about crossing the boundaries that set humans apart from the rest of the world.
trickster mischievous figure appearing in various forms in the folktales and mythology of many different peoples
shaman person thought to possess spiritual and healing powers
dualistic consisting of two equal and opposing forces
underworld land of the dead
Native American mythologies describe a time in the past when the boundaries between people and animals were less sharply drawn and beings changed form (known as shape shifting) freely. Bears were especially close to humans, and in some Native American stories, bears appear as humans wearing coats made of bearskins. The Tsimshian people of the northwestern coast of the United States tell about Asdiwal, a young man who follows a white bear up a mountain to the sky. He discovers that the beast is actually a beautiful woman dressed in a bear skin, and he marries her.
The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that the gods could blur the boundaries between different classes of beings. Ovid's Metamorphoses is a collection of Greek and Roman legends about mortals whom the gods turned into animals and plants. Both Chinese and Slavic mythologies include tales of people who, under some evil force, turn into werewolves.
The Scots have stories about silkies—imaginary sea creatures resembling seals that take on human form, marry men and women, and then return to the sea. In fact, the theme of animal wives or husbands comes up over and over again in mythology. Native Americans tell of girls marrying bears and men marrying deer. Eskimo and Chinese tales mention beautiful, seductive women who turn out to be foxes in disguise. In one Eskimo story a woman enters the home of a hunter while he is out. She cooks for him and stays for some time, but eventually she puts on her fox skin and disappears. The well-known fable of Beauty and the Beast is a modern version of the myth of the animal husband whose beastly form cannot disguise his noble soul.
Sometimes transformations are forced on people by cruel or wicked sorcerers or as punishment for offending the gods. When people voluntarily seek transformation, however, the change can be a sign of power. In many societies, individuals called shamans were thought to have supernatural abilities, including the power to communicate with animals or to transform themselves into animals. South American shamans were said to be able to change themselves into jaguars.
Connections. Myths, legends, and folktales often highlight the close links between people and animals. West Africans and Native Americans, for example, believe that each person has a magical or spiritual connection to a particular animal that can act as a guardian, a source of wisdom, or an inspiration. Among the Plains Indians of North America, individuals had to discover their spirit animal through a mystical experience called a vision quest. Some Native American religions in Central America include nagualism, the idea that each person's life is linked to an animal or object called a nagual If the nagual is hurt or killed, the person suffers or dies. One myth says that the naguals fought on the side of the Native Americans against the invading Spanish centuries ago. Traditional African religions had secret societies in which men believed they took on a leopard's strength by performing rituals that involved wearing leopard skins.
Totem Poles and Animal Ancestors
The Native Americans of the northwestern United States and Canada believe that each clan or kinship group is descended from a particular animal, such as a whale, wolf, or bear. This animal has become the group's totem, a powerful symbol of its identity. People display their identity and status with totem poles—tall standing logs carved with images of mythical animals. Totem poles mark the approaches to villages and the burial sites of chieftains and stand at the entrance of each clan house.
sorcerer magician or wizard
supernatural related to forces beyond the normal world; magical or miraculous
ritual ceremony that follows a set pattern
In many societies, people believed that shamans had animal helpers who guided them through the supernatural realm. This idea is similar to the common image of a witch's "familiar"—an animal, usually a black cat, that gives the witch certain powers. Animals offer helpful advice to ordinary people in many legends. Generally, those who ignore the animal's advice will fail to achieve their goal.
Sometimes a family, a clan, or a whole society feels a special attachment to a certain kind of animal, usually one that they consider to be an ancestor or protector. This connection, called totemism, defines social groups and their behavior. Hunters are sometimes forbidden to kill their group's totem animal, for example. Among the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest, the beaver, the eagle, the raven, and the killer whale are all associated with particular clans.
Many cultures have legends of human children raised by animals. The Romans claimed that a wolf mother had fed Romulus and Remus, their legendary ancestors. The story of Tarzan, raised by African apes, is a modern version of this ancient myth.
Roles in Myth and Legend
Animals fill a wide variety of roles in myths and legends. Many stories explain the part that animals played in creating the world or in bringing fire, tools, or farming skills to humans. Animal stories also tell how things came to be the way they are or how animals acquired their appearance or characteristics. A story of the Seneca Indians, for example, says that the chipmunk's stripes were originally bear scratches. In addition, animals may play tricks, symbolize human qualities, and terrorize humans.
Gods, Creators, and Heroes. In some mythological traditions, the gods take on animal form. The ancient Egyptians portrayed their gods as animals or as humans with the heads of animals; Bastet was a cat goddess and Horus a hawk god. Although supernatural animals such as Pegasus, the winged horse of Greek mythology, were not gods themselves, they were often created, given power, or protected by the gods.
Some myths associate animals with the creation of the world. Asian and Native North American traditions place the earth on the back of an enormous turtle. Myths of Africa and elsewhere tell that the earth was formed from or supported by the body of a huge serpent. Some legends say that the earth's features, such as lakes or canyons, were carved by the digging of mythic beasts.
Animals are linked to human origins as well as to the origin of the world. Many Native American clans believed they were descended from animals, and the Yao people of southern China traced their origins to a dog ancestor. Animals also helped shape human existence by acting as messengers to the gods. An African myth tells that the gods sent two animals to earth, one
Animals can play a positive role as well, bringing people the gifts of civilization. Various African myths, for example, tell of a dog, chimpanzee, wasp, and praying mantis bringing fire to people. The Bambara people of Mali believe that a sacred antelope taught people to farm long ago. Zuni and Navajo myths show animals behaving heroically on behalf of people. In Chinese legends, monkeys perform brave deeds, while in Mayan myth, they possess artistic talent, particularly in writing and sculpture.
Symbols. Animals sometimes appear in myths and legends as symbols of certain characteristics they are believed to represent. Common phrases such as "sly as a fox" or "brave as a lion" are everyday examples of the practice of using animals to represent human qualities. The dog often appears as a symbol of loyalty in myths and legends, and the tiger stands for power and vitality. In Celtic mythology, the boar symbolized war, and its image was carved on helmets and coins. Many cultures have stories in which animal characters representing human qualities present moral lessons.
Animals can also be symbols of the deities. Because people traditionally saw owls as wise, Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, was often shown with an owl. Dolphins might indicate the presence of the sea god Poseidon (Neptune).
Tricksters. Many myths feature animal tricksters, mischievous and unpredictable beings who use deceit, magic, or cleverness to fool others. Although some tricksters are just playing pranks, others act in harmful ways. Occasionally, the tricksters themselves wind up being tricked or trapped. Their limited magical powers may echo the greater powers of the gods.
In Native American mythology, the best-known trickster is Coyote, who can take on human form. One of his favorite tricks involves masquerading as a hunter in order to sleep with the hunter's wife. Many African legends feature a trickster spider, tortoise, or hare that uses cunning to outwit larger or more powerful animals. African slaves brought tales of the trickster hare to America, where it eventually became known as Brer Rabbit.
Monsters. From the great sea beast called Leviathan in the Bible to the mutant lizard Godzilla of modern science fiction movies, monstrous animals appear in many kinds of myths. Monsters represent our darkest fears: chaos and uncontrollable destruction. A monster is more than just a large or fierce animal. It is something abnormal, something that breaks the laws of society.
deity god or goddess
chaos great disorder or confusion
An animal may be monstrous simply because of abnormal size. The most dreadful monsters, however, do not correspond to anything known in the real world. Often they are hybrids, mixtures of different species—another breaking of natural boundaries. Dragons,
Other hybrid creatures include the griffin, a combination of eagle and lion, and the Plumed Serpent, Quetzalcoatl, a god of the Maya, Toltecs, and Aztecs that is part bird and part snake. In addition, the pygmies of Central Africa tell stories about encounters with a living dinosaur, a beast the size of an elephant, with a long neck and brownish-gray skin.
Some hybrids are blends of human and animal. The centaur is half man, half horse; the echidna is a snake woman; the manticore is part human, part lion, part dragon; and the satyr is a manlike being with the lower body of a goat. In mythology, hybrid creatures often have a dualistic nature.
Common Animals in Mythology
Certain animals appear frequently in the myths and legends of different cultures, often with different meanings. Snakes or serpents, for example, can be helpful or harmful. The Romans regarded snake spirits as protection for their homes. The Hopi Indians, who live in a dry part of the American Southwest, have stories about a water snake that is associated with springs. Because the snake sheds its skin as it grows, some cultures have seen it as a symbol of rebirth and have associated it with healing.
However, in the Bible, the snake is a treacherous creature that introduces Adam and Eve to sin. A Japanese myth tells of a huge snake with eight heads that holds a princess prisoner. Snakes and snake-like dragons play a similar evil guardian role in many other tales.
Other entries related to animals in mythology are listed at the end of this article.
The bull is another animal with a dualistic nature that appears in many myths. It can represent either tremendous energy and power or frightening strength. In Celtic mythology, the bull was a sign of good fortune and fertility. In several Greek legends, bulls were associated with death and destruction. At different times, the hero Theseus* killed both a wild bull that was destroying farmers' fields and the minotaur, a dangerous half-man, half-bull monster. Among Native Americans who traditionally lived by hunting buffalo, myths describe the buffalo's fertility and generosity. The buffalo controls love affairs and determines how many children a woman will bear.
Dogs almost always appear in a positive light. Native American stories generally portray the dog as the symbol of friendship and loyalty In Greek and Roman mythology, dogs often acted as guardians; the three-headed dog Cerberus, for example, guarded the entrance to the underworld. Many cultures associated dogs with death as well as with protection. Both the ancient Egyptians and the Aztecs of Mexico believed that dogs guided the dead on their journey through the afterlife. Occasionally, dogs appear in negative roles, such as the hellhound Gram in Norse mythology or the fighting dogs belonging to the Greek goddess Hecate.
The goat is another dualistic animal. Male goats are negatively linked with dangerous or uncontrolled sexual lust, while female goats appear as mother figures. In Greek mythology, Zeus* was nursed as a baby by a she-goat. Goat images in mythology are often associated with sexuality and fertility.
Foxes in mythology are usually quick, cunning, and sneaky. In Asia, the fox represented sexual seductiveness. Japanese legends tell of fox spirits called kitsune that can turn themselves into people and have the powers of deceitful witches. In yet another example of the dualistic nature of animals, however, Japanese mythology also portrays the fox as the messenger of Inari, the god of rice. The ancient Romans regarded foxes as fire demons, perhaps because of their reddish coats, and in Christian mythology, the fox is associated with the devil.
The Battle of Ireland's Bulls
To the Celtic people, bulls stood for strength and power. Irish mythology tells of two famous beasts, the White-Horned Bull of Connacht and the Brown Bull of Ulster. The rulers of Connacht and Ulster each boasted of the size of their bulls. However, some said that the gods had sent the bulls to Ireland to cause trouble. Eventually, the two bulls met in a fierce battle that raged across all of Ireland. The Brown Bull won but then died. The death of the two magical bulls brought peace between Connacht and Ulster.
The frog appears in many transformation stories, most likely because it goes through a transformation of its own, from tadpole to frog. Another animal that undergoes a physical transformation is the butterfly, which begins life as a caterpillar, rests in a cocoon, and emerges as a butterfly to spread its wings. The Greek word for butterfly, psyche, is also the word for soul, and in Greek mythology the butterfly was the symbol of the soul's transformation after the death of the body.
See also Anansi ; Basilisk ; Birds in Mythology ; Brer Rabbit ; Centaurs ; Cerberus ; Dragons ; George, St. ; Gorgons ; Griffins ; Hydra ; Leviathan ; Loch Ness Monster ; Manticore ; Metamorphoses, the ; Minotaur ; Monsters ; Nemean Lion ; Pegasus ; Sacrifice ; Satyrs ; Serpents and Snakes ; Tricksters ; Unicorn ; Werewolves ; Witches and Wizards .